Germany between being stuck in the presence and creative powers unfolding within a small radius

Two-thirds of Germans are anxious about the future of society. A lack of trust in the country and its institutions and the fear of social division are forcing people to retreat into more private cocoons. However, there is also a growing willingness to work alone or with like-minded people for a future worth living. These are the central findings of a representative and depth-psychological study conducted by the Cologne-based rheingold institute in cooperation with the non-profit Philosophy Identity Foundation in Düsseldorf.

“I see people facing huge problems in this century. Drought,
hunger, wars for resources, migration movements all over the world.”
(female, 28 years, Hamburg)

The omnipresence of serious crises has unsettled the population, and confidence in a better future has been fundamentally shaken: the majority of Germans are in a “no-future” mode. They face social challenges and upcoming upheavals with a resigned attitude. They do not believe that the major problems of our time can be solved; the performance of the country and Germany’s future prospects are viewed with great skepticism. Confidence that the government, politics, institutions and parties can solve the crises has eroded: Only 26 percent are optimistic about the political actions and political parties in the future. The majority perceives: “Germany is on the brink of decline” (61 percent) and “we are facing drastic changes as a result of crises such as Covid and climate change” (88 percent).

Many citizens find themselves in an acute feasibility dilemma. They recognize the major problems of the future, but have no idea how these challenges of the century can be overcome. As a result, they are increasingly retreating into their private shells or personal cocoons. “People are entrenching themselves in small circles of influence with like-minded people and are trying to save what can still be saved in their personal environments,” says Stephan Grünewald, psychologist and founder of the rheingold Institute, which specializes in depth psychological research.

The global, European or all-German perspective is replaced by a new reference point. The focus is on one’s own self, one’s family or one’s immediate social environment. Private “niche projects,” taking care of one’s own world and the pursuit of personal small happiness are consequently more frequently sought after. Optimism for the future tends to be supported by a belief in oneself and one’s own abilities (79 percent), one’s own family (79 percent) and one’s personal environment (81 percent).

Faith in the unifying government and parties is fading. The greatest fear for the future is beyond the actual climate change the change in social climate with its progressive polarization and the drifting apart of society.

Government action experienced during the Covid and climate crises is by most considered inadequate. This contributes to an insecure and partly resigned relationship with politics. Although many respondents see good conditions for a successful life in Germany on an individual level (67 percent), confidence in social cohesion is increasingly eroding: 83 percent are afraid of a social divide, 90 percent observe a growing social divide between rich and poor, and 91 percent perceive increasing aggression in society.

The fear of division is already anchored in the present. Half of the population feels “let down” in their current life situation. 30 percent state that life is currently already “difficult and burdensome.”
“difficult and burdensome.” At the same time, about one-third (31 percent) feel relaxed and more optimistic about prosperity.

The study revealed also significant differences with regard to concrete personal strategies for the future, which form six distinct types. The spectrum ranges from the encapsulated, who prefer to ignore questions about the future or glorify the past, to the tribalists, whose radius of action ends in the neighborhood or in the club, to the missionaries, who devote themselves to an ideology that saves the world, such as veganism.

A spirit of optimism is germinating on a small scale – a third consider themselves to be working towards a better future.

A smaller, yet noticeable, part of the sample showed a hopeful grassroots mentality. Many respondents experienced self-efficacy and progress through their actions. A mood of optimism, a desire for a better future and a commitment to shaping things are evident in a third of those surveyed when they get to grips with their own living environment. Many develop the feeling that they can contribute themselves and promote a better world from underneath. Neighborhood initiatives, changed eating and consumption habits, social and ecological networks or post-capitalist business models are attracting more and more attention in the world of those surveyed.

These “small circle activists” are very heterogeneous in their topics, goals and lifestyles. Although a significant overall social trend is not yet discernible, optimism about the future is evident in particular contexts and shows opportunities for growth. The fact that these many small roots of a new commitment to redefine the future in this decade is currently the great hope of an otherwise sobering picture Germans have of their outlooks.

“The hopelessness that many people feel and the political failures that the majority bemoan is something we’ve noted in our previous studies,” says Paul J. Kohtes, founder of the Philosophy Identity Foundation. “We may be facing a very fundamental shift in societal perspective, and the idea of institutional solutions from the top is a discontinued model. What’s interesting is that one third of the population now finds encouragement in the spiritual, not as an escape from the world, but as a drive to energetically face life and its challenges,” Kohtes says.

“We are experiencing a turning point in time,” Grünewald affirms. . “This study describes the spirit, the uncertainties, the forces of regression and progression of a transitional period in which our society will undergo massive change.” It remains to be seen whether the tendencies toward retreat and further parcellation will be strengthened, or whether the forces of social growth together and overcoming dividing lines by taking up common challenges will be strengthened.

Sample and methodology of the study:

As part of the qualitative study of the future, 64 voters were interviewed in two-hour in-depth psychological interviews. Respondents were selected to be representative of party preferences and sociodemographic structures (gender, regional distribution, age distribution, education and occupation) of Germans. The in-depth explorations were conducted and analyzed by a team of five psychologists. The findings were underpinned by a quantitative survey with 1000 sociodemographically representative Germans.

About qualitative market and media analyses conducted by rheingold Institute:

rheingold is one of the most renowned suppliersfor qualitative psychological impact research. With around 50 permanent employees and 140 freelances – mainly psychologists – the institute specializes in depth-psychological cultural, market and media research. Every year, around 5,000 women and men figuratively lie “on the couch” at rheingold. In this process, the psychologists analyze the unconscious psychological influencing factors and contexts of meaning that help determine human behavior.

About the Identity Foundation:

The Identity Foundation is a non-profit organization for philosophy and conducts projects on questions of identity. Previous research topics have included the development of elites, the self-image of Germans, and aspects of the personal and spiritual development of being human. Since 2014, the foundation has been a cooperation partner of phil.cologne, Germany’s largest annual philosophy festival. Here, it oversees its own salon series under the title “Crossing the Boundaries of Philosophy”.

The permanence of the crisis puts the brakes on the optimistic mood.

When talking to Germans about their thoughts about the future, there is only little spirit of optimism. Two decades of crisis have led to a deep sense of insecurity among people in this country. Many feel that their ideological foundations have been shaken, trust in institutions and political parties is waning, the ideological framework is dissolving, and people are increasingly worried about a further division and polarization of society.

“I’m part of the generation that has to live with the decisions we make today. If we continue like this, it will soon be over with us.” (female, 26 years, Munich area)

Covid emphasized fear of the future and strengthens self-reference

The Covid crisis has further exacerbated people’s insecurity and heightened their fears for the future. After all, almost everyone has experienced their lives being turned upside down and the rhythm of their everyday has been thrown out of sync. Friendships or relationships ended due to deepening ideological rifts over the “right” way to deal with the virus or vaccination. In addition, many policy decisions during the Covid crisis have been experienced as inadequate or inappropriate.

“The pandemic has shown that our country cannot protect us from everything. We have to increasingly depend on ourselves.” (male, 29 years, Munich)

People’s openness towards the future and the world has shrunk considerably. Many no longer think in global or European dimensions. Even the national perspective dropped out of sight because people primarily focus on their localarea, their own family or themselves. Only 5 percent of the respondents in the quantitative survey consider themselves actively involved in society (demonstrations, environmental activism, etc.), while 41 percent focus on their local area and make a contribution in everyday life, for example with sustainable consumption or neighborhood assistance.

Symbolically, many Germans have retreated into their private shell. In their small sphere of activities, they surround themselves with like-minded people to feel security and self-assurance.

“Our home is Noah’s Ark. Our home is not going down.” (Respondent in in-depth interview before flooding).

This is also reflected in the figures of the representative survey: the majority perceives an increased self-referentiality of people (87 percent) and places hopes in a good future on an individual level (64 percent). Therefore, the personal future security (pension and social security) is also at the top of the personal wish list (70 percent), the desire for an intact environment only ranks second (50 percent).

Fundamental feasibility dilemma creates future vacuum

The confrontation with the future plunges people into a fundamental dilemma of feasibility. Beyond their self-designed spaces of retreat, they encounter problems in the world that are almost impossible to overcome: The delta variant is on the rise, the example of Afghanistan shows how fundamentalist world views undermine the values of the West, and floods and forest fires make climate change undeniable.

“I see people facing huge problems in this century. Drought, hunger, wars for resources, migration movements all over the world.” (female, 28 years, Hamburg urban)

People feel that they are facing century-long challenges globally and nationally (pensions, affordable housing, debt, care emergencies). However, most have no idea how to solve these enormous problems, and they also experience politics as largely haphazard. The future appears as a huge vacuum that is sometimes filled with paradisiacal hopes of redemption, sometimes with dark fantasies of doom:

“I see a lot more green, affordable housing, no hot spots, more animals. We don’t fly anymore. Everyone is taken care of. Maybe there will be a basic income for everyone because the machines will work for us. Everyone can be who they are, no one cares.” (female, 26 years, Munich)

“If the climate catastrophe occurs, we in Europe will have to live as if under a dome. A cheese dome, so that the air is still there to breathe. Around it there is misery, drought, everything is full of dust and darkened.” (male, 18, student, Cologne)

Fear of social climate change: confidence in social cohesion is decreasing.

Although many respondents still see good conditions for an individually successful life in Germany (67 percent), confidence in social cohesion is decreasing: 83 percent are afraid of a social divide, 90 percent observe an ever-increasing social divide between rich and poor, and 91 percent perceive increasing aggressiveness among people. The promotion of social justice and the interests of the common good were named most frequently (89 percent) when it comes to the most important tasks of politics.

The fear of division is already anchored in the present. Half of the population feels “let down” in their current life situation. Thirty percent say that life is already “difficult and stressful” at the moment. At the same time, about one-third (31 percent) feel relaxed and more optimistic about prosperity. There are also significant differences with regard to concrete personal strategies for the future, which are represented through six future types.

Six future strategies along the spectrum of regression and progression

Six future strategies along the spectrum of regression and progression

The Encapsulated force themselves into retreat and entrench themselves in self-referentiality or in symbiotic relationships that are not questioned. They rigorously blank out the big questions about the future because they want to maintain their personal status quo. Sometimes they tend towards a idealizing their own or Germany’s past.

The Familiars have strengthened their kinship support during the crisis. Their ideas for the future mainly relate to stabilizing or expanding their nuclear family. A larger apartment or property, their children’s education or travel determine the horizons of their lives.

The Tribalists focus on growing together on a social level and get involved locally with like-minded people. The implementation of their projects in groups or neighborhood associations gives them the feeling that they can shape the future on a small scale.

The Self-empowered associate the future primarily with their personal career and their development or career opportunities. They have experienced in the past (as migrants or career driven people) that they can turn their destiny around through ambition or trust in their abilities. Trust in God or in the government is replaced by trust in one’s own potential, which can be developed if one is optimistic and willing to change.

Progress Illusionists placate the feasibility dilemma with the hope that technological development will solve the major challenges. This gives them the (moral) freedom to enjoy the rest of their lives without restraint. For them, the future is above all the unfolding of their dreams.

The Missionaries tackle the future by trying to save the world. They eat a vegan diet, avoid travel, or rely on cryptocurrency. It is important to them to act as role models in their personal areas of importance and to convince others of their stance.

A preliminary form of missionizing is increasingly found among young people in their (typically good) relationships with their parents. Since most young people do not risk an open revolt, they have developed a subtle form of re-education – setting new standards in sustainable lifestyles or gender-equitable language in an attempt to create a better future in the family environment. The flip side of the new model of education, however, is an ever-increasing delegation of shaping the future from parents to the younger generation.

The upheaval turns out to be an opportunity: expanded self-efficacy, the power of authentic neo-communities and the desire to grow together.

Pressure to change (88 percent) and a pessimistic view of the future (76 percent) are clearly evident. Nevertheless, the crises are also perceived as an opportunity (80 percent). This is because Covid and the lockdown experiences have also led to a new form of self-efficacy. Facilitated by the external restrictions, many people have become active and creative indoors. Cooking, planting, renovating – full of pride and confidence, many have felt that they can make a difference and move things in small ways.

Considering the discussed vacuum of the future, activism in the personal sphere is perceived as the only way to counteract the perceived hopelessness. Experiencing togetherness and a willingness to reassure others (51 percent) while exploring one’s spirituality to some extent make some of the population optimistic about the future (32 percent).

Social relationships were also reordered and sorted. Maximizing digital contacts was replaced by the search for more and sustainable relationships: Who is really close to me? Who can and will I trust? Who can and will I trust? With whom can I make a difference? The devastating floods in Germany in particular have shown how a community comes together in solidarity.

The focus on the local area has strengthened the sense of responsibility and feasibility, and has helped achieve and change something on a local level. Future projects then emerge from the respective concrete spheres of life – these are typically approached very pragmatically and as a counterpoint to the promises of the more abstract political establishment. People feel that participation leads to greater satisfaction and community spirit.

Prognosis: We are experiencing a turning point in time and the study describes the spirit, the uncertainties, the regression and progression forces of this transitional period. The hope remains that rather than the tendencies to retreat and further parcellation are strengthened, but the forces of socially growing together. In this way, the experienced social fragility can be stabilized and dividing lines can be overcome by taking on shared challenges – the individual can grow beyond themselves through the feedback and appreciation of the community.

For more in-depth questions about the study, please feel free to contact us.

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Stephan Grünewald

Stephan Grünewald


The psychologist Stephan Grünewald from Cologne is founder of the market and media research institute rheingold. Grünewald was with the books "Deutschland auf der Couch" (2006) and "Die erschöpfte Gesellschaft" (2013) and "Wie tickt Deutschland?" (2019) bestselling author. Tel .: +49 221-912 777-17 E-Mail: gruenewald@rheingold-online.de